Monthly Archives: June 2010

Boston, Part Two: Harvard Bookstore

My mom and I are both into luck

Here I am, with books and jellies

One of my favorite things about traveling for Mattaponi Queen has been visiting independent bookstores and learning about the ways they’re reaching out to the community. Harvard Bookstore, founded in 1932 and located right in Harvard Square, was one of the most innovative and welcoming I’ve visited yet.  

The first thing I noticed was the diverse array of staff recommendations scattered throughout the store–in the art books, the fiction, the poetry, the political science books. In the same way that Newtonville Books asks their guest writers to sign a back wall, I thought it would be cool if bookstores gave blank recommendation tags to writers who are reading in the store so they could highlight favorite reads. Then customers could not only get more help with browsing, they could also see who’s read in the store lately.

The crowd at Harvard was great–responsive and warm, with good questions–and after the reading, Harvard’s owner, Jeff Mayersohn, showed off a unique attraction: Paige M. Gutenborg, the book-making robot:

Using this robot (one of about 30 in the world), customers can print Google Books or self-publish their own works quickly and on demand (and at a fraction of the price charged by vanity presses). In the past month alone, Harvard printed 1,100 books. Two excellent recent examples: a book of short stories by a fourth-grade class, and Microchondria, a collection of short short stories by writers in the Cambridge community.

The bio pages from Room 145

Local writers contributed to this book
A basket of book trimmings to give away

Both books have been very popular, and both produced great events for the bookstore. What a terrific resource for teachers and writers!

Usually I don’t have much time to browse after my readings, but at Harvard I bought this anthology for Richard. It’s a new release from the University of Georgia Press, and I knew he would like it because the first poem is one of his favorites: Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed!).” I enjoyed browsing the anthology on the train from Boston to New York, which I’ll write about next…


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Boston, Part One: Newtonville Books

Boston—what a beautiful city! Flowers and trees everywhere! I was lucky to spend four days there with my mom while in town for readings at Newtonville Books and Harvard Bookstore. We had an amazing time and walked walked walked. When we weren’t walking, we were eating seafood. A man in Boston Common asked me on a date for no reason, and the one time we took a cab we thought our cabbie was on methamphetamines.

My mom is charmingly old-fashioned about some things, which shows up when she travels. She wears old socks to go through airport security, and when she puts her sandals back on she throws the socks away. She has a horror of unisex bathrooms, and she really, really hates gum. She thinks fast elevators make you shorter. Quirks aside, she is a great travel companion.

enjoying frozen yogurt in Boston Common

Boston Common is full of four-leaf clovers

 Newtonville Books seems to have a very supportive community of readers. Jaime and Mary, the owners, are gracious and kind, and I was interested in their store’s many innovative programs. They host a monthly, low-cost writing workshop, have book clubs and “celebrity” book clubs (with a guest writer), and maintain a community blog. They also offer a generous 20% discount on all books to store members and stock a nice selection of films based on books (members can borrow the DVDs for free).  If you live in Newton, why would you shop for books anywhere else?

I was at Newtonville with the fabulously talented Aimee Bender, who also went to Irvine and, years ago, talked to me on the phone when I was considering MFA programs. I read “Deer Season” and Aimee read chapter ten of her terrific new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Here we are, signing books:

One of Aimee’s fans had a tattoo of the cover image from An Invisible Sign of My Own on his leg. My mom is a big Aimee Bender fan too, and also a protective and concerned person, and this made her a little worried for Aimee, but the guy looked pretty sincere and harmless to me. No one had a Mattaponi Queen tattoo. If you’re thinking of getting one, I would say don’t.

Another interesting occurrence was meeting a writer who went to high school with Eula Biss. Three people from their high school English class have gone on to become writers. I would love for that to happen for one of my classes.

Here are a few more photos from Boston:

The back room at Newtonville is full of messages from writers

My friend Julie and her amazing vegetable tarts, which we enjoyed before the reading

Wall of kids' art at the MFA


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Printers Row, Chicago

I wish I took more photos at this event, but aren’t Erin and Marisa from Graywolf so cute?

It was wonderful to finally meet them and the amazing Eula Biss, who signed my first edition Notes from No Man’s Land with a cool, sepia-toned pen. I loved hanging out in the Graywolf booth, signing books. I also bought some great books from publishers and booksellers–there were many deals!–and participated in a short story panel moderated by Megan Stielstra with Anne Sanow, Jabari Asim, and Adam Schuitema.

So far, my favorite new book from Printers Row is not a new book at all: Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray, published in 1999 by the excellent Milkweed Editions. It caught my eye because it was blurbed by Wendell Berry and Peter Matthiessen, two of my favorites. It’s a memoir of childhood in a junkyard in south Georgia and a reflection on the loss of the longleaf pine forests there, and it’s beautifully written and really interesting. You can order it here.

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Malaprop’s in Asheville

If you’ve never been to Asheville, North Carolina, you should go! It’s a beautiful mountain town with excellent restaurants, an art and music scene, and all kinds of hiking nearby (if you want a glimpse into the area’s artistic significance, check out my friend Cathryn Davis Zommer’s Fully Awake, a fascinating documentary about the seminal Black Mountain College). Some people call Asheville the San Francisco of North Carolina. If you get married there and invite me I will totally come to your wedding.

Malaprop’s is an excellent bookstore right in the center of town. It’s been in business since 1982 and has a thriving author series (Aimee Bender reads there tomorrow!). From their website, here’s what founder and owner Emoke B’Racz says about the store’s philosophy and goals: “I wanted Malaprop’s to be a place where poetry matters, where women’s words are as important as men’s, where one is surprised by excellence, where good writing has a home, where I could nurture my addiction to literature, and play, enjoy, and entertain people drawn to quality books.”

I read there on a Tuesday evening, just before a book club meeting, and really enjoyed talking to a small gathering of readers (a couple of people already had Mattaponi Queen in hand). I read the beginning of “It Won’t Be Long,” talked about writing and research, and gave out some preserves, of course. And I was delighted to meet Lauren, event coordinator and former Graywolf staffer!

It’s been so much fun to visit the different independent bookstores and see the way they’re arranged. I like the way Malaprop’s has so many categories throughout the store, like regional fiction—it makes browsing easier—and that they have places where you can sit down with the books you’re considering. I also love that book clubs meet in their café. I’ve talked to a few people lately who’ve complained about their book clubs’ time on task—people want to drink wine and talk about their kids. I bet holding your meetings in a book store would help.

The next day, I got to go hiking with my friends Jen and Josie. Here I am in the hotel with Josie, who got a lot of compliments in Asheville:

I like a town that appreciates dogs.


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Locust Grove Wine and Art Festival

the Walkerton bridge

Tomorrow, if you’re on the Middle Peninsula, you might stop by the Locust Grove Wine and Art Festival. My mom will be there, selling copies of Mattaponi Queen (she says she’s going to sign the books “Belle’s Mama”). The festival is from 10-5 and will include wine tastings, music, art, and kids’ activities. And if you buy a book, my mom will give you a bouquet of flowers from her garden or some MQ preserves.

Locust Grove is a really pretty spot. Here are some directions in case you can make it. I’d be there, except I’ll be in Chicago at Printers Row tomorrow!

More soon.

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Look at this tiny clover–I found it yesterday on the way back from the Haw. 

Also yesterday: a very nice review of Mattaponi Queen in Bookslut.

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Joseph-Beth Booksellers/What I Wish I’d Said

Joseph-Beth Booksellers, in Charlotte, is one of the most impressive bookstores I’ve been to in a while. It’s huge, like a library, divided into sections that feel distinct and invite leisurely browsing and reading. My dad was able to order a sandwich and a glass of whiskey in this bookstore. Just look at their fireplace:

 The staff was immediately welcoming, and I noticed that they had a thoughtful and prominently displayed “staff picks” section at the front of the store (my mom bought Jason’s pick, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis). I read there on Sunday afternoon.

Choosing between two stories

Most of the preserves--and all but one book--were gone by the end of the reading!

This was a special reading for me because Jumbo Wilde was there to hear me read and visit with my parents, who traveled with me from Chapel Hill. Jumbo shares the book’s dedication with Richard, and I wish I’d said something at this reading about why. Although he might have a few things in common with one of the characters in Mattaponi Queen, the real reason is because for my whole life, Jumbo has been an example of not losing yourself in adulthood, of holding onto your creativity and your sense of humor. It is true that I was afraid he’d burn our house down with his somnolent smoking when he visited us, but I was always worried that our house would burn down (it didn’t).

Jumbo brought his family and practically his whole neighborhood. Here I am signing a book for Mrs. Wilde, his mom:

My mom’s cousin Anne and her daughter Torie also came to the reading.

Signing a book for Anne

 Anne is a teacher who works with at-risk kids in Charlotte and is featured in a new documentary on PBS called “Souls of Our Teachers.” This is a subject that’s pretty close to my heart, so I’m excited to watch the documentary when it’s finished. Click here to watch a trailer for the film.

And I met several new people, including a writer and historian who used to be an assistant principal at King William High School (long replaced by football coaches and sadists by the time I went  there).

Joseph-Beth has just opened a new bookstore in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which I’ll be excited to visit sometime. Here are a few things I really appreciated about the signing and reading:

-Betsy Dugan, the event coordinator, showed me around the st0re and even offered to photograph the event. I think she took excellent pictures. (And she had even researched how to say Mattaponi!)

-There was no hurry to get started (we were waiting for someone for a few minutes).

-Sitting down to read was a nice change.

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